Thursday, September 24, 2009

Asteroid attack: How would we cope? (New Scientist)

When an email like that hits your in-box you cant help but race across the desktop with your mouse pointer and click it.

The answer apparently if you want the short answer is "Not very well".

Then the article is full of more questions such as

"Should we panic?"

A. Not really, a killer impact strike would only happen once every 2000 years and the odds of hitting a populated area are even smaller.

"Can we nuke it?"

A. No, not unless we had several years warning. At the moment our early warning systems just aren't good enough. One asteroid last year was only detected 20 hours before impact. 2008 TC3 detonated over Sudan and was too small to do any damage anyway but millions of asteroids that could do some damage are out there and we are not yet tracking all of them.

The exciting questions over with, I can tell you about what the article is actually about. The US Air Force ran an exercise in 2008 where they played out a scenario where a killer asteroid was heading straight for earth. Straight out of Hollywood there were two parts of the asteroid, one heading for a splash down in the Atlantic ocean on the west coast of America and the other heading for Washington DC. Cut to people screaming and running past notable Washington monuments and running past electrical shop windows with President Obama on screen urging people to remain calm all the way via satellite from Air Force One currently flying over New Zealand.

Back to the studio where CNN have bought in whoever answered the phone first, to pretend to be an expert on asteroids / politics. "Its all the governments fault they should have seen it coming years ago. They cut funding into asteroid destruction technologies and invested in free health care for all. What were they thinking?"

Sorry, digressed suddenly there, too much thinking about life according to a Hollywood movie script.

Commenting on the scenario outcome which demonstrated that the US was woefully unprepared for such a disaster Peter Garreston (organiser) had this to say:

"As a taxpayer, I would appreciate my air force taking a look at something that would be certainly as bad as nuclear terrorism in a city, and potentially a civilisation-ending event."
He wasn't just talking about the X-factor rejects from the first round who with their off key singing destroyed several world heritage sites yesterday.

Simon Cowell responded with these comments directly to the planet killer asteroid:
"I am just not convinced by your planet killing performance, I just didn't feel it. Your just too small this year, you need to come back next year... Danni Yes or no?"
Normal service is being resumed ... please hold while we connect you to sanity.

US Air force 0 - Asteroid 1. Final Score.

Anyway, moving on. Having pretty much determined that being able to avert disaster was pretty much impossible the assembled team turned to disaster management. Somebody had forgotten to get coffee from the supermarket and everybody knows you cant deal with a disaster without some serious black coffee.

The primary concern in the disaster management scenario was to stop the public who were in the path of the asteroid from panicking. In my opinion the only way you could stop the public panicking is to shut the media up. You only have to look back to the credit crunch to see how good the media are at proclaiming the end is nigh. Their doom scenarios would cause the public to panic within about three seconds although you might have 30 seconds of grace while they come up with a suitable two word caption for the screen.

Cue movie voice. "It was a time of darkness, the media had the biggest story ever, the story to end all stories, the story to end it all..."

A bland boardroom is shown on screen with a number of men and women in power suits.
Random media type 1: Yes, but what's the caption.
RMT2: How about "earth crunch"
RMT4: Sounds too much like "credit crunch", crunch doesn't spread fear as much as it used to.
RMT3: How about "Armageddon"
RMT2: No, that is only understandable by the AB1 demographic and its only one word.
RMT1: How about "Fatal Friday"
RMT3: No sounds like another stock market crash.
RMT2: How about"End of the World, as we know it"
RMT1: Too long it will appear over the station logo.
RMT4: How about "We're screwed"
RMT1: Well its direct, two words, but it just doesn't have any zing.
RMT3: How about "Rocky: The final return".
RMT2: No, that's already been copyrighted for the movie of the disaster.
RMT1: I know, how about: "Mankind's Annihilation"
RMT2: Works for me.
RMT4: Excellent.
RMT1: OK that's agreed, now lets talk sponsorship, are we thinking Coke or Nike...
Back in the reality created by the US Air Force which one can only assume didn't include a simulation of the media machine.

Timothy Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts who has also probably been watching two many Hollywood blockbusters suggested this scenario.
"I'm picturing people panicking and driving the wrong way on the freeway, screaming 'Oh my god, it's going to kill us!'"
We are not just talking republican policies on health care here either (little current affairs reference for my American audience). In true Hollywood fashion he forgot to mention the two teenage virgins by the side of the road getting busy as they certainly don't want to die a virgin. I am thinking American Pie meets Armageddon, now that would be worth going to see.

The outcome of the exercise was a realisation that there is no asteroid emergency plan beta 6 and Bruce Willis is not on 24/7 asteroid destruction call out. However the earlier the warning the better the response would be.

Which brings us nicely on to early warning systems. The good news is that two out of the three early warning systems are in Arizona where during the months of July and September you cant see a thing because of the cloud cover. Excellent, I can see that makes everyone feel better. Lets hope no asteroids turn up at that time of the year, perhaps they will just leave a calling card and come back later.

Even better news, the US Air Force have imagined a scenario where an asteroid could start world war 3: The final showdown. If an asteroid detonated over a politically sensitive area like the middle east then it might be interpreted as a nuclear attack and governments may retaliate.

Of course NASA has put a lot of money into funding projects to track potential planet killers but in a selfish approach they only focus on the Northern Hemisphere which is perhaps a bit short sighted as a planet killer in the Southern Hemisphere could still destroy all life on the planet as we know it.

NASA and the European space agencies are working on it though, so hopefully things will improve in the future.

NASA are also working on an Asteroid ship which will help defend the planet. Exclusively, here now I can reveal the working prototype:

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